The best player in the NRL right now started the season as, perhaps, the fourth-best player at his club.
But a series of catastrophes for the North Queensland Cowboys - which turned to be something less dramatic - presented Michael Morgan with an opportunity that no one saw him taking so clinically.
Just a few weeks back, the North Queensland Cowboys were out on their feet. Too many players were broken, they were losing games, and – with the playoffs fast approaching – they were sliding down the NRL ladder and into a long summer.
Their main man, Johnathan Thurston (pictured right) – one of the best players rugby league has seen (and loved by everyone, including my mum) – was out for the season. Matt Scott – the Queensland and Australia prop – had played just two games all year. With over a quarter of their salary cap handing out drinks and sweeping the sheds, there was every right to lose faith. Only Jason Taumalolo, of the ‘big three’, was earning his keep on the field.
But when space is created, it gives others room to move. And in the massive hole that Thurston left behind, Michael Morgan well and truly put his elbows out.
That’s Brad Fittler, a former captain of Australia, reflecting on what Morgan has done in steering the Cowboys into Sunday’s NRL grand final, after sneaking into the finals in eighth place. Others, including Roosters coach Trent Robinson and rival play-makers Cooper Cronk and Mitchell Pearce, have been similarly lavish in their praise.
The rise of Michael Morgan has been the story of the finals series. The Cowboys used to win 30% of their games without Thurston, but Morgan has taken his team through three sudden-death games and to within 80 mins of a second NRL title. He’s been in the thick of everything, too.
With Thurston, Morgan was noted as a strong runner of the ball. Without him, he kicks field goals, 40/20s, forces repeat sets, puts team mates into gaps and still scores tries and defends superbly. His ability to do new things, while retaining everything from his old bag of tricks, has been stunning.
The world of sport presents many opportunities for people to step up. Dan Carter, for example, left international rugby considered the greatest All Black first-five. When he went off to France, Beauden Barrett jumped into his position, ran even faster than Carter, and was named World Player of the Year. What might have happened if Barrett had been set free earlier?
Going back deeper into All Blacks’ history, Grant Fox once dominated the first-five position. His goal kicking was hugely accurate and played a key part in keeping the brilliant running game of Frano Botica on limited show. Botica (pictured), who didn’t kick goals, eventually joined the famed Wigan rugby league club, was handed the kicking tee, and belted shots over at around 90% some seasons. He still holds records at the club.
"The only regret I have is that I didn't practice goal kicking a bit earlier," says Botica. "I was dabbling in it, but I wasn't practicing like Foxy used to practice. I only started doing that when I played league."
It makes you wonder what potential is sitting there untapped in those around us. Who in our team could be smashing it if only we gave them the chance? How could we deliver better ourselves? And how can we create such opportunities without needing disaster to hit first?
For the Cowboys and Michael Morgan, opportunity presented itself very clearly. But making the most of it took patience. Initially Morgan wasn’t totally nailing the job, but as he and rest of the team got used to life without Thurston, things started to gel. Everyone lifted. And Morgan knew this was his time.
“I couldn’t just be a second fiddle anymore because JT wasn’t there,” he said. “It was up to me to pull my finger out and embrace the challenge of it.”
It was Earnest Hemingway who said that “the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” In the absence of the great JT, the Cowboys trusted Michael Morgan and – regardless of Sunday’s result – he’s delivered.
“I’ve got nothing more to say to him now; he’s going that good,” said Thurston.
“He’s really come of age while I’ve been sitting on the sidelines.”